Thursday, January 20, 2011

What to Do If You Question the Validity of Your Conversion

I know what more of you are thinking: Who in their right mind would do that??

I have yet to see anyone anywhere discuss this topic: what if you question the validity of your own conversion? Quite frankly, that's everything converts want to avoid!

The LAST thing a convert wants is someone else to question his or her conversion, which may throw his or her life into a real mess! (Not to mention the lives of a significant other and/or children!) This creates the ultimate reason to push any concerns about the validity of your conversion to the back of your mind, ignoring them or chalking them up to something you don't understand about halacha. However, if you do have a concern about your conversion, it's better to address the issue yourself and now. The sooner you address your concerns, the less issues will exist with spouses and children. (Most concerns will be clearly evident to you immediately or within the first few conversations afterwards.) And in my opinion, it's much better to address any concerns yourself rather than knowing you have a potential time bomb and waiting for someone else to challenge it!

Thankfully, you have many options to "correct" a questionable conversion, no matter your movement.

There are several steps:
A. You're probably pretty angry. I can't blame you. Take some time. Cool off. I don't recommend talking to your rabbi, the converting rabbi, or anyone else about it for a little while. If you end up switching to a different rabbi later, you may even be told not to tell to the old rabbi about your concerns (particularly if the "old" rabbi won't take them seriously).
B. Figure out how to articulate what you think was wrong with your conversion. It's probably pretty simple when you think about it. The most common culprits I can think of are...
  1. Rabbi wasn't qualified by the movement you're converting with (more so an issue if your converting rabbi is different from your sponsoring rabbi or an "emergency rabbi" gets called in who actually belongs to a different movement).
  2. Rabbi has "gone off the deep end" within that movement (this is the issue that can emerge later).
  3. Being expected to lie during your beit din. In other words, asking questions with a "hint hint, nudge nudge, know what I mean?" attitude. Whether or not you actually mean the answer the beit din "wants," the fact that they expect you to not tell the truth is a HUGE issue.
  4. Procedural issues with the mikvah and/or bris. This can be the easiest and least emotional to "fix."
  5. You may find more than one concern from this list.
C. Once you're calm and can articulate your concerns, consider your options (but don't do anything yet):
  1. Talk to your congregational rabbi (who may or may not be the converting rabbi) about your concerns and set up a second conversion through the same group. I only recommend this if the issues were very minor and mostly procedural. A smart rabbi would probably still set you up with a different beit din just in case.
  2. Convert again with a different group within the same movement. In other words, switch rabbis/shuls. This may not be possible in smaller communities, so if you're set on staying with the same movement, you may have to move or wait until you move. Be careful about the passage of time creating more issues to "fix."
  3. Consider "going up" to a stricter movement and converting again through that movement. For example, from reconstructionist to conservative or reform to orthodox, whatever the combination may be. (I think that if you decide to "go down" movements, the average rabbi will probably tell you a second conversion isn't necessary, but I could be totally wrong.)
  4. If your first conversion was orthodox, consider a gerus l'chumrah through a different beit din, which is a process made specifically to remove doubt from a prior conversion.
D. Once you've considered your options, talk to the "target" rabbi. It may turn out that your concerns are unfounded and that you don't need to take the step you were considering. But by talking to the "target" rabbi instead of the converting one (unless it's a minor issue, as noted above), you can get a second opinion from exactly the person you've decided you would like a second opinion from.
E. Whatever you do, remember that you should be careful how, when, and where you discuss your concerns. No matter how angry you are (and you should be angry!), that does not justify lashon hara (evil speech), which governs both true negative statements and run-of-the-mill gossip.
F. I'm going to list a second warning to watch what you say because this point is SO important: Remember that any statement to anyone (even other rabbis) can bring other converts from the same converting rabbi/beit din into "questionable" status. Take your statements and actions very seriously and weigh your words carefully because you aren't the only person they affect.  
You have the power to ruin other people's lives.
    If you're stuck in this un-enviable position, I'm very sorry.  However, you're not alone, and you're not powerless to fix it. But be prepared for everyone to think you're crazy and being too strict. Good luck, you're gonna need it!


    1. I've dealt with having questioned the validity of my conversion... my reform conversion... I didn't know I had to question it until my husband converted and my rabbi that was to marry us asked me and him for our conversion papers... Conversion papers? I asked. I didn't get any conversion papers. Yeah, it is not fun questioning the valitity of a conversion!

    2. The strange thing is...I usually get questioned regarding my conversion more from my own shul and Conservative "peers" than I do my Orthodox friends.

    3. You really should just write a handbook :)

    4. I didn't convert - sorry - I was born into Judaism, so I don't know what the conversion 'experience' is like, but I can easily understand the need to resolve self doubt. Living Jewishly, which, after all, is what conversion to Judaism is all about (I assume), can easily backfire: rather than validating the convert's sense of inclusion in the Jewish community, it can just as readily cause the convert to Judaism to feel isolated and fraudulent. Not to worry! Living the life of a Jew is indeed what it's all about, including a genuinely felt love for the G-d of Israel. If you accept Jewish theology as an integral part of your own identity, then your conversion has indeed been valid, but for this heart-felt identity one must study Judaism, so get thee to a yeshiva!!!

    5. I think the two points every convert needs to bear in mind are:

      1) Only convert in the first place through a conversion that is widely recognised - even if you don't intend to take on all the customs of that very strict group e.g Satmar. There are people out there who can tell you in confidence which conversions are universally accepted - Rabbi Aryeh Mosen of the orthodox conversion yahoo group comes to mind.

      2. The observant life you lead after converting testifies that you are genuine. If you are clearly keeping mitvos there is no reason why any serious questions about your conversion should arise, and if they do, the rabbis will be on your side.



    6. Bathsheba - what you've said is a little contradictory:

      You say that you should convert with a strict beit din: when they ask if you will be keeping halacha, they mean a very strict definition of halacha. That sounds a little dishonest...

      I think, at the end of the day, find the most legit beit din with whom you can discuss your level of observance openly, and one that will be accepted by the community in which you hope to live.

      And you have to remember, halachic conversion and conversion-legitimate-for-aliyah-and-acceptable-to-others are two different things. Halachic conversion requires a sincere commitment to halacha by the convert, three shabbos-observant men to witness (they don't even have to be Rabbis!), and a dip in the mikveh. That's all you need for a halachic conversion.

      Aliyah demands more, as do many communities nowadays. But whether they should or not is a whole other story.

    7. I have friends who converted by Israeli rabbinate and then went for a Mehadrin conversion, since they felt the need to be more chareidi.

    8. Bathsheba: You make very practical suggestions (though Anonymous has a good point). However, little has to do with reason in this situation. And rarely are the rabbis on anyone's side when a group of rabbis seek to invalidate a convert. Rabbinic politics come to a head, leaving the convert in the middle without anyone willing to commit social/professional suicide on his or her behalf. Further, most of the people I know who were asked to do a gerus l'chumrah were told that there was NOTHING "wrong" with their converting rabbi/beit din. They moved, and the new community felt that the old rabbis weren't "religious enough." The most common group I've seen that required a gerus l'chumrah is conversions through Young Israel, a mainstream, respected group within orthodoxy. Basically, no one is immune today, and no matter how much you do, you are still open to attack from someone, particularly in the U.S. and Israel. There is a lot more solidarity in the U.K., if you're the Bathsheba I think you are.

      As a general point: This post is probably MOST useful to non-orthodox converts. Liberal conversions are usually overseen by a local rabbi instead of a specialized conversion beit din. This can lead to all the issues that can happen when the rabbi is new to conversion or simply less knowledgeable about the law. Also, there is both more AND less transferability of liberal conversions, with some communities taking everyone's and other communities being more strict. I think it's much harder to estimate acceptance of these conversions when changing communities.

      You should all note that all the movements view their conversions as "halachic." The orthodox world doesn't have a monopoly over the term halacha. Also, even the reform movement increasingly requires all the "procedural" aspects of conversion, including brit milah and the mikvah. The conservative movement also strives to get Shabbos-observant rabbis/lay people for their batei din.

      Also, note that there are actually THREE considerations when choosing where/how to convert: a) how you feel about your conversion, b) how communities feel about your conversion, and c) how "good" the conversion is for aliyah. As I noted in the aliyah post, you can have the most chareidi conversion in the world and still "fail" to be Jewish for aliyah purposes.

    9. An unfortunately sensible post, some of it necessitated by the present-day politics of conversion rather than real considerations of Hashem's Torah.

      I would add: assuming a person converted in accord with halacha and in good faith, and assuming that they are observant - they ought not cast aspersions upon themselves. A private conversation with a trusted rav to clarify the issue is okay; but don't express your doubts to others and don't take them too seriously yourself without verification. You are a holy Jew, living by Hashem's holy Torah, and you shouldn't feel you must diminish that in any way without clear cause.